LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — The University of Louisville basketball coaches and players have given up shaving. I'm giving up speculating. At least, about this Cardinal team. Until it visits Cincinnati on Saturday.
So long as the Cards are playing the likes of Houston, Temple, Rutgers and Central Florida, this column space is going to be a conclusion-free zone. Actually wait, I'll give you one conclusion, and only one: If you're a bad basketball team, these Louisville guys are your worst nightmare.
They're going to prepare for you as if you were the Miami Heat, the bar exam and a first date all rolled into one. They're going to come out pressing. They're going to use their guard play to cut through your defense like a chain saw, and their post players are going to seem bigger than life. They're going to kill you with respect. It's gory. They not only know what you did last summer, but they know all your underneath out-of-bounds sets. Nobody beats bad teams like Louisville, as its nation's-best victory margin attests.
Rutgers, can I get an Amen? Louisville beat Rutgers so badly Sunday that the NCAA is requiring The Big Ten to change its name to The Smedium Ten after the Knights join.
The Cardinals pounded Rutgers 102-54. They made 16 three-pointers. It got so out of hand, ESPN commentator Dan Dakich was digging deep into his own basketball past early in the second half, just to have material to stay awake. When David Levitch entered late, Dakich embraced him like the glimmer of hope that he was at the end of a train tunnel of a broadcast.
"He's the baby-faced assassin," Dakich said.
(You can get your B.F.A. bumper stickers, T-shirts and drink coolies at the next home game. And don't give me any crap about NCAA violations. Levitch is down at the Cafe Press right now printing them all up.)
Somewhere about the time Luke Hancock was making his fourth or fifth three-pointer, Dakich observed that, "Louisville is playing as well or better than anyone in the country." When reminded that the Cards' level of competition wasn't always, shall we say, respectable, he countered, "Yeah, but studying the tape, they're as impressive as anyone you're going to see. . . . Louisville looks like they've got good listeners. If somebody says something out there, it looks like they pay attention."
Dakich, of course, has no choice. He has to weigh in. He can't just sit there and not talk. It's a drawback of the job. Sometimes you'd like to sit there and eat an $8 hot dog when the margin gets past 30, but you have to fill the broadcast.
If you did have to draw conclusions from the Cards' past couple of games, if, say, someone put a gun to your head and screamed at you to do it, I suppose you could say that Chris Jones and Russ Smith appear to be playing better together. And that Terry Rozier is becoming a more seamless sub for both.
And you could say that Montrezl Harrell is much improved in the post, and that Stephan Van Treese is coming along offensively, and Mangok Mathiang is making steady progress.
You might even say that Wayne Blackshear appears to have turned the corner, but at that point the trigger would be pulled and you'd be a goner.
Every player who saw action against Rutgers — and even a few fans who didn't — scored in Sunday's game. Hancock had a career-high 25 points. Rozier had a career-high 16. The Cards had 34 field goals on 23 assists. They had 11 steals. Still, conclusions are dangerous. I wouldn't advise them. I'm holding my ground.
Pitino knows that the real tests are about to start. But he appreciates his team's attention to detail right now. Each of his past two books have included chapters on "Focus." This team hasn't lost it much this season, and it has had plenty of excuses.
"Our guys just nailed their focus," Pitino said. "They really pay no attention to whom they're playing and they just play hard. They aren't always going to win but they will play their butts off. They don't look at the other team's record. They don't look at how the other team is playing. They just focus in on winning the game. I am real proud of them this season."
It's easy to take for granted. SMU went to Temple on Sunday — and lost. Michigan State lost at home to Nebraska. And those losses can hurt you more than any quality win can help you — something Pitino is constantly preaching to his team.
But being prepared has never been a concern for this group. Playing hard and competing isn't a concern. Those are things the Cards have done — win or lose — all season.
What remains to be seen is how their interior players handle ranked opposition when they see it again at Cincinnati. Whether they can keep quality teams off the offensive glass. Whether they can get Blackshear going against some of the better teams on their schedule the way he plays against the weaker teams.
Is everything that appears to be coming together really coming together? Or are the Cards destined to resume their dollar shave club membership next week?
To make a conclusion now, based on what the Cards have done in four straight victories against teams ranked an average of No. 168 in the Ken Pomeroy ratings, would be a little like making a judgment on Louisville weather based on a random February day.
Don't do it. Pitino knows what lies ahead for his team. At Cincinnati, at Memphis, at SMU. We'll find out about this group soon enough. Pitino knows what he's hoping.
"We have played very well on the road. We have done that for a long time. Since joining the Big East, we have had the best record for most road wins in the Big East. So we have always been a good road team," Pitino said. "The guys come in and play hard. We had a very good chance of beating Memphis and Cincinnati. At the end we made some mistakes, we dribbled off our foot one time and it cost us big. They are good basketball teams. We are a good road team and we are going to three of the most hostile environments you are going to see. And we know that. We like that. So we are encouraged by that.
"We always try to play our best basketball in March and we put heavy emphasis on the conference tournament at the end of the year. First goal is to win the regular season. Our second goal is to win the conference tournament. It is a big dress rehearsal for the NCAA tournament. You have very little preparation time like the NCAA so that is going to be interesting — as well as (the tournament) is in Memphis. We have really, really good teams in this conference with good guard play. But I am really happy with the way Mangok Mathiang and Stephan Van Treese are playing. In the last month, the jump that Montrezl Harrell has taken in other phases of the game is important."
Sorry, coach, I'm going to have to cut you off right there. We're not doing conclusions here yet. We're just kind of cracking jokes and having fun.